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SF Art: Planet of the Knob Heads

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 16/01/2018 - 4:42am in

There are some stories whose titles alone bring joy and pleasure. One of these is the Jack Vance fantasy novel, Servants of the Wankh, which for some strange reason had another title when it was published over here in Blighty. Another is ‘Planet of the Knob Heads’, which a friend told me about years ago as an example of a story with an unintentionally hilarious title. I found it a little while ago in one of the pulp magazines in the SF section of one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham. Unfortunately, when I came back to look for it later, that section had moved around and the stock had grown, so I’d lost it. But it’s there somewhere, so who knows, I might be able to find it again sometime in the future.

This is the art for it, which I found at the Sciencefictiongallery site over on Tumblr.

Putting museum collections to work

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 16/01/2018 - 3:27am in

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Art museums keep almost all their art in storage and out of view, and then pretend they don’t have it, while charging an arm and a leg to get in to see what they actually show. Tim Schneider, whose weekly column on the business of art in ArtNet is worth following, joins the deaccession debate that has now linked two current controversies: the Metropolitan Museum’s decision to demand out-of-town visitors to pay the full $25 to get in, and the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell most of its collection to start on a substantially changed mission.

Schneider reports a commonly quoted 10% of major museum collections as being on view, but it’s worse than that: a decade ago at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts it was about 5%,  and at the Met more like 1%.  To be fair, these are object counts, and the artistic (and money) value of what is shown is a much higher fraction of the total, but there is still a Golconda of treasure that isn’t on view and will never be. An important enabler of the rampant misallocation of so much of the world’s plastic arts patrimony into storage vaults is museum accounting rules that permits them to leave the entire collection off the balance sheet, effectively pretending it just isn’t there and in particular, isn’t available to fund programs (and physical expansion) that could put more art in front of more eyes; Schneider admirably concludes “let’s at least seriously consider [emphasis added] how billions of dollars in stored art might be able to help solve some of the crises afflicting art museums around the world.” Indeed.

SF Art: Robot Evolution

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 15/01/2018 - 4:13am in

I found this piece of SF art over at the sciencefictiongallery tumblr site. It looks like it’s the cover art to one of John Sladek’s two ‘Roderick’ books, Roderick, or The Education of a Young Machine, 1980, and its sequel, Roderick at Random, or Further Education of a Young Machine, both published by Granada in the UK.

It’s clearly based on all the illustrations showing the evolution of humanity from apes, through Australopithecus, Homo Erectus, the Neanderthals and finally to Cro Magnon people and ourselves. But instead of humans, they’re ape-like robots. At the moment scientists are busy trying to copy the behaviour and abilities of insects as a way of solving some of the complexities involved in robotic engineering, quite apart from the bipedal robots that have already been created. But this looks like it should be the way robots are evolving, rather than starting with machines modelled on ants and other insects.

Glenn Lowry FTW

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 13/01/2018 - 3:14am in

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The top guy at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, than which there is no whicher in the museum world, has come out for managing museums’  multi-billion-dollar art collections as productive assets.  He wants more engagement, in more places, than their current practice of having almost all the art (i) in storage (ii) in the museum the works were first given to.

…one should de-accession rigorously in order to either acquire more important works of art or build endowments to support programming [emphasis added]….It doesn’t benefit anyone when there are millions of works of art that are languishing in storage….we would be far better off, in my opinion, allowing others to have those works of art that might enjoy them, but even more importantly, converting that [wealth] to…support public programs, exhibitions, publications.

I argued a couple of years ago that art museum managers had nailed their feet to the floor by a code of “ethics” that forbade selling for anything except buying more art, and an inexplicable practice of not telling us what their collections are worth while they beg for donations. Lowry is moving in the right direction and will make real waves among his peers.

Roger Dean and Nemesis the Warlock’s Gooney Birds

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 12/01/2018 - 4:39am in

Long time readers of 2000 AD may remember the Gooney Birds. These were vast, predatory metal birds evolved from Concorde, that appeared in the second Nemesis the Warlock story, ‘Killerwatt’, back in Prog 178, when one of them attacked a train carrying the strip’s villain, Torquemada, as it passed overland.

Looking through the Sciencefictiongallery tumblr site, which shows pieces of classic and not so classic SF art, I came across this similar piccie by Roger Dean on the page for the 5th February 2014.

It isn’t quite the same thing. Dean’s picture is of a Blackbird spy plane, rather than Concorde, but the idea’s the same. The crowd at 2000 AD took some of their inspiration from the popular culture around them, including pop music. It was why the revived Dan Dare was made to look rather like Ziggy Stardust. The two earliest Nemesis the Warlock stories, ‘Terror Tube’ and ‘Killerwatt’, were published as part of a ‘Comic Rock’ series of strips, which were explicitly inspired by the pop music of the time. In the case of ‘Terror Tube’, this was the Jam’s ‘Going Underground’. In fact, the story had its origin in Mills and O’Neill wishing to stick two fingers up to the comic’s editor, Kevin Gosnell. Gosnell had censored a chase scene in the ‘Robusters’ strip on the grounds that it was too long. So when he was away on holiday, Mills and O’Neill created a story, ‘Terror Tube’, that was just one long chase. As the strip itself acknowledged in its titles, the second Nemesis story, ‘Killerwatt’, was suggested by the album ‘Killerwatts’.

Roger Dean is known for the superb artwork he did for various record sleeves. So you’re left wondering whether Dean’s depiction of the Blackbird spy plane as swooping bird of prey served as the inspiration for the Gooney Birds in the Nemesis the Warlock story, or if it was just an idea that was going around at the time, and which different artists had independently. Either way, ‘Killerwatt’ and its predecessor, ‘Terror Tube’, blew my teenage mind with their depiction of a ravaged, far-future Earth, populated by weird creatures and under the malign heel of Torquemada and Terminators. They provided a solid basis for the Nemesis the Warlock strip proper when this later appeared, and helped to make it one of 2000 AD’s most popular strips.

#1369; In which a Tub is dusty

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 09/01/2018 - 4:00pm in

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The ceramic attachment can also be used for vacuuming glass, tile, or diamond plate steel.


Appropriation and de-politicization: the uncomfortable discussion on Umm Kulthum in Berlin

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 09/01/2018 - 4:17am in

An open letter about intellectual and artistic spaces being used to quash a side of the debate, to delegitimize voices and valid criticism instead of engaging in much needed intellectual debates.

Funeral of Umm Kulthum, 1975. Middle East Broadcasting Center. Public domain. This is a response to HAU Hebbel am Ufer's statement regarding the criticism surrounding their event "Diva: Celebrating Oum Kalthoum // Ariel Efraim Ashbel & friends"; and the article appearing in Der Tagesspiegel where HAU director Annemie Vanackere dismisses the criticism as "identity politics", portraying a "theatre" of "multiculturalism" and "bridges". 

I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Vanackere when I participated in a panel at HAU that centred (in part) around some currents in the "white left" and European art circles refusing any criticism towards Islam in the context of fighting Islamophobia. Something I am against. Islamophobia is a serious form of discrimination, and it should be faced, but it shouldn't become a lazy argument to discredit critical voices within Islam or around it. Back then I also spoke about the complexities in my own personal experience of being a Queer, Muslim, Atheist, Migrant living in Germany with a set of privileges (lighter skin, artist stature..etc). 

I think there will be a letter that is being prepared by Arab and non-Arab artists to respond to the event, and to detail the criticism. But I decided to speak up as the article in Tagesspiegel is quite dangerous and to be honest, offensive. Above all, it is offensive to the intellect of those who have engaged in discussion with the artist and HAU to detail the reasons for why this event is problematic. 

Germany has a particular condition when criticising anything that has to do with Israel

Germany has a particular condition when criticising anything that has to do with Israel. The same line of lazy thinking that I was against during the HAU panel: using Islamophobia (which is existing and rampant) to discredit criticism. Allusions of anti-semitism (which is existing and rampant and should be faced) to discredit any type of criticism towards the Israeli government. Many artists/academics in Germany are afraid to speak when it comes to such topics. I do of course risk ostracisation and being "blacklisted" from funding or from spaces to work - similar to what various friends from Jewish Israeli artists and activists based in Berlin are suffering as consequences of their criticism of the Israeli government or Zionism. 

This particular case is not about HAU, and this is not about this event. This is about intellectual and artistic spaces being used to quash a side of the debate, to delegitimize voices and valid criticism instead of engaging in the much needed intellectual debate about appropriation, depoliticization, re-appropriation, colonial discourses and an intentional cognitive dissonance to protect a hegemonic self-congratulatory /theatre/ space of openness. 

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn't fit in with the core belief.” Frantz Fanon - Black Skin White Masks. 

What HAU and Ms. Vanackere seem to intentionally miss - as I have full confidence in their intelligence and intellect; is that this goes beyond the Middle East and what they discredit as "identity politics". Despite various people and artists writing to HAU, they decided to reduce the argument to the following statement:

"In the Arab world Oum Kalthoum’s work is of deep significance and how it is interpreted is followed with critical interest: Is an Arab, Jewish Israeli, working with Arab musicians, allowed to interpret the songs of an Egyptian icon? In order for a work, which can doubtlessly be considered world heritage, to retain its vitality and even expand its reach, it should be open to interpretation. Ariel Ashbel has already done this during the first version of "Diva: Celebrating Oum Kalthoum" last year at the Berliner Uferstudios. The concert there brought together people from the neighbourhood, making Oum Kalthoum’s music accessible to them and giving life to the idea that a concrete encounter between individuals is still possible despite any political tensions and conflicts. We consider it important to give space to this idea and invite all of you to attend on January 6 and 7 at HAU Hebbel am Ufer."

Instead of addressing the political and intellectual arguments presented, HAU rather opt to feed the very same liberal narrative the event was criticized for. This white "laissez-faire" artistic space that is void of a critical approach and that fails to address key complexities.

The criticism is not about an "Arab Jew" working on Umm Kulthum per se. It is rather about an Israeli working on Umm Kulthum and striping her, forcefully, out of the politics she represents. I will not delve into the sexism of depoliticizing such a political female voice as that is a whole set of other points. Umm Kulthum was and still is an iconic singer and a key political figure that enjoyed massive political power - too nationalist for my taste, but nevertheless. It is about a (self-identified) Israeli artist who despite denouncing the crimes of his government (check his statement on his personal page), fails to see the implications of his art. 

Umm Kulthum alongside Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anouar Al Sadat. (CC BY 4.0)There are much bigger postcolonial implications of this beyond the Middle East. In an earlier comment, I mentioned similar problems if I was as an Arab artist to tackle Amazigh or Kurdish topics or art (to name a few). Similar if a Spanish artist was to tackle Mexican art. Just like the artist, I too have left to "laissez-faire" in Berlin. But I do take responsibility for the hegemony of the Arabic identity on the cultures that have suffered from its colonialism. When I want to "build bridges", I start by my own side of the bridge, by listening and learning.

HAU uses the Mizrahi identity to give the artist a carte blanche. The debate could be richer if we dissect both the Mizrahi and the Arab identities and engage in dialogue around them. We can also talk about the Israeli construction of a Mizrahi identity, and the Arab identity in relation to the Israeli. Both culturally and politically. A rich discussion. The artist is the product, by choice or not, culturally and economically, of the very power that Umm Kulthum was resisting, "remaking" her to fit a narrative she didn't subscribe to. To work around all those complexities require a space for discussion, not an imposition. 

Umm Kulthum raised funds for the resistance against Israeli colonialism

The artist himself/themself doesn't speak a word of Arabic and in his previous presentation he couldn't even translate the titles of the songs he worked on and was presenting. He lacks the necessary understanding to make anything about Umm Kulthum "more accessible". And by doing so, he and HAU are risking to present an erroneous image of an icon that encompasses issues of high cultural, political and social importance. Take for example the singer, with due respect to her efforts; she fails at the most basic of the ins and outs of Arabic Tarab and her Orab (عُرب) are a miss. This is key to understanding Umm Kulthum to make her "accessible". If you take away the politics, the Tarab component, the figure she was/is, what is left? A reduced gentrified image of an icon. 

Umm Kulthum raised funds for the resistance against Israeli colonialism and was a militant in nationalist politics at the time to resist worldwide imperialism. She played an active political role both on state and public levels. I can of course include my criticism of the power she enjoyed and some of the politics she portrayed, but that is not the point here. Rewriting her to feed a narrative she vocally resisted is unfortunate. Umm Kulthum didn't subscribe to "music for music" or "art for art" (to be honest I don't know anyone who does). 

The criticism is about a discourse of cultural hegemony and appropriation that is very well known and which many of us non-white artists are witnesses to and sometimes victims of. It is also about token representation that aims to evade the responsibility rather than embrace the dialogue and the complexity. There are organized efforts worldwide between Israeli and non-Israeli artists to collaborate and work in ways that do not feed the narrative of power and respect the plights of the oppressed. I invite you to educate yourselves on that. It is more constructive than being on the defensive. All sides learn from a constructive discussion. 

Multiculturalism and bridges, if they are to be constructed with respect, require discussion and care - sometimes painful, at times uncomfortable, but nevertheless necessary.

Your response is unfortunate. I do give you more credit than that. The artist wrote a much better response on his personal page and though he failed to address a good chunk of the criticism; he understands the complexity to better extents. I again recommend a Fanon reading, even Amilcar Cabral. 

I invite you to engage in debate. It is not a win/lose situation for anyone, it is a chance for an important intellectual and artistic dialogue and discussion to happen. Multiculturalism and bridges, if they are to be constructed with respect, require discussion and care - sometimes painful, at times uncomfortable, but nevertheless necessary. Be the space to embrace it, not the space to quash it. 

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Bertolt Brecht

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Snake Dancer

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 01/01/2018 - 2:12am in

Now she’s on a transparent background and a 48-frame cycle, and blinks!

Snake_Dancer_16

 

Same on a black background:Snake_Dancer_17Previous version here.

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Torquemada: 2000 AD’s ‘Ultimate Fascist’ and a Prediction of the Rise of the Brextremists, Kippers and Trump

As you’ve probably gather from reading my previous posts about art robot Kevin O’Neill, I was and am a big fan of the ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ strip that ran in 2000 AD from 1980 through the 1990s. The villain of the piece was Torquemada, the former chief of the Tube police on an Earth thousands of years in the future. Outraged by the interbreeding between humans and their alien subjects, Torquemada overthrew the last, debauched emperor, founding an order of viciously genocidal knights, the Terminators. The construction of the linked White and Black Hole bypasses, giving Earth instant access to the Galaxy, also created terrible temporal catastrophes, resulting in creatures from even further into the future appearing in the present. These included the terrible gooney birds, giant predatory Concorde aircraft, which fed on the trains and anything else that travelled over Earth’s devastated surface. Torquemada and his Terminators blamed these disasters on aliens, killed human scientists and engineers, leading humanity into a new Dark Age. The Human race retreated underground, where the Terminators told them they would be safe from the terrible aliens threatening them. Terra was renamed ‘Termight’ – ‘Mighty Terra’, though Mills also gave it the name because the underground society resembled a massive termites’ nest. And Torquemada set up a corrupt, Fascistic, quasi-feudal society, which also included Orwellian elements from the classic 1984.

Pitched against Torquemada was the hero, Nemesis, an alien warlock. Horned and hooved, with magical powers, he resembled the Devil, and at one point, in conversation with his mad, cruel uncle Baal, he explicitly states that his powers are satanic. Nemesis is also the head of Credo, a human resistance movement dedicated to overthrowing Torquemada and restoring freedom and interspecies tolerance to Earth. Also resisting humanity’s aggressive expansion and extermination of other intelligent races were the Cabal, an alliance of various alien worlds.

The strip was possibly one of the weirdest 2000 AD had run, and was too weird for editor Kevin Gosnell, who hated it. But it was massively popular, at one point even rivalling the mighty Judge Dredd. Torquemada became British comics’ most popular villain, winning that category in the Eagle Award four years in a row. He was so popular that in the end I heard that they stopped submitting or accepting the character, in order to let others have a chance.

Torquemada speaks on the radio, in the strip that launched the character and Nemesis, ‘Going Underground’.

Looking back, I have mixed feelings about the strip. I still like it, but I’m not entirely comfortable with a hero, who has explicitly satanic characteristics, nor the villains, who are very much in the style of medieval Christian crusaders. Mills and O’Neill had had the misfortune to suffer brutal Roman Catholic education, and Mills states that where he grew up, everyone involved in the Roman Catholic establishment was corrupt. Everyone. They poured everything they hated about the bigotry and cruelty they had seen and experienced into the strip.

From a historians’ perspective, it’s not actually fair on the Roman Catholic church. Yes, medieval Christianity persecuted Jews, heretics and witches, and warred against Islam. But the great age of witch-hunting was in the 17th century, and cut across faith boundaries. Prof. Ronald Hutton, a History lecturer at Bristol Uni, who has studied the history of witchcraft and its modern revival – see his book Triumph of the Moon – has pointed out that the German Protestant states killed more witches than the Roman Catholics. And those accused of witchcraft in Italy had far better legal protection in the 16th century than those in Henry VIII’s England. You had a right to a lawyer and proper legal representation. If you couldn’t afford one, the court would appoint one for you. Torture was either outlawed, or very strictly regulated. There was a period of 50 years when the Holy Office was actually shut, because there were so few heretics and witches to hunt down.

As for the equation between medieval Roman Catholicism and Fascism, a graduate student, who taught medieval studies got annoyed at this glib stereotype. it kept being repeated by their students, and was historically wrong. This student came from a Protestant background, but was more or less a secular atheist, although one who appreciated the best of medieval Christian literature.

Underneath the personal experiences of Mills and O’Neill, the strip’s depiction of a future feudal society was also influenced by Protestant anti-Catholic polemic, and the theories of the 19th century French liberal, anti-Christian writer, Charles Michelet. It was Michelet, who first proposed that the witch-hunts were an attempt by patriarchal Christianity to wipe out an indigenous, matriarchal folk paganism. It’s a view that has strongly influenced feminist ecopaganism, although academic scholars like Hutton, and very many pagans have now rejected it as historically untrue.

The robes and masks worn by the Terminators recalled not only those worn by Spanish Catholic penitents during the Easter Day processions, but also the Klan, who are an Protestant organisation, which hates Roman Catholics as well Jews and Blacks.

There’s also the influence of John Wyndham’s classic SF novel, The Chrysalids. This is set in Labrador centuries in the future, after a nuclear war has devastated much of the world, except for a few isolated spots of civilisation. Society has regressed to that of 17th century Puritanism. The survivors are waging a war to restore and maintain the original form of their crops, animals and themselves. Mutants, including humans, are examined and destroyed at birth. As with the Terminators, their clothing is embroidered with religious symbols. In this case a cross. Just as Torquemada denounces aliens as ‘deviants’, so do the leaders of this puritanical regime describe human mutants. And like the pro-alien humans in Nemesis, a woman bearing a mutant child is suspected and punished for her perceived sexual deviancy.

In fact, the underlying anti-religious, anti-Christian elements in the strip didn’t bother me at the time. Mike and myself went to an Anglican church school here in Bristol, though the teaching staff also included people from other Christian denominations such as Methodism and Roman Catholicism. They had a real horror of sectarian bigotry and violence, sharpened by the war in Northern Ireland, and were keenly aware that Christians had done terrible things in the name of religion. I can remember hearing a poem on this subject, The Devil Carried a Crucifix, regularly being recited at school assembly, and the headmaster and school chaplain preaching explicitly against bigotry. At the same time, racial prejudice was also condemned. I can remember one poem, which denounced the colour bar in one of its lines, repeatedly turning up in the end of year services held at the church to which the school was attached.

I also have Roman Catholic relatives and neighbours, who were great people. They were committed to their face, but also bitterly opposed to sectarian bigotry and violence. And the Roman Catholic clergy serving my bit of Bristol were decent men and women, though some of those in other areas were much more sectarian. I’ve Protestant friends, who went on to study RE at a Roman Catholic college. Their experience was not Mills’ and O’Neill’s, though I also had relatives, who were estranged from the Church because they had suffered the same kind of strict, and violently repressive Roman Catholic education that they had.

But Torquemada and the Terminators were far from being a veiled comment on atrocities committed by medieval Roman Catholicism. Torquemada modelled himself on Tomas de Torquemada, the leader of the Spanish Inquisition, whose bloody work he so much admired. But he also explicitly styled himself as the supreme Fascist. By fostering humanity’s hatred of aliens, he hoped to unite the human race so that they didn’t fight each other over differences in colour. But the character was also supposed to be the reincarnation of every persecuting bigot in European and American history. In one story, Torquemada becomes seriously ill, breaking out in vast, festering boils, because Nemesis’ lost son, Thoth, has used the tunnels dug by the Tube engineers to channel away the destructive energies of the White and Black Hole bypasses, to travel backwards in time to kill Torquemada’s previous incarnations. These include Adolf Hitler, natch, one of the notoriously murderous American cavalry officers, responsible for the butchery of innocent indigenous Americans in the Indian Wars, and finally Torquemada himself. Torquemada therefore travelled back in time to confront his former incarnation, and save himself from Thoth.

This was followed by another story, in which Torquemada himself travelled forward to the 20th century. Infected with time energy, Torquemada caused temporal disruptions and catastrophes in the London of the present. He found himself a job as a rack-renting landlord, before founding a Fascist political party. Using Brits’ fears that these disasters were caused by aliens, he became a successful politician and was elected to Number 10.

And one of Torque’s previous incarnations, recovered by Brother Mikron, his pet superscientist, using advanced technological hypnotic regression, was very familiar to British readers with an awareness of the history of Fascism in their country.

Torquemada as Hitler, and very Mosley-esque British Far Right politician. From Prog 524, 30th May 1987.

In the above page, Brother Mikron recovers Torquemada’s past incarnation as Hitler, but only after encountering a later incarnation, in which Torquemada was Sir Edwin Munday, the British prime minister, and leader of the New Empire Party. Munday/Torquemada goes off an a rant on public television, shouting

‘I’ll solve the youth problem! We’ll make our children respectable again! – with compulsory short back and sides! The return of National Service! Order and discipline’.

His name clearly recalls that of the far right, anti-immigration Monday Club in the Tory party, which was at the centre of continuing scandals during the 70s and 80s over the racism of some of its members, the most notorious of whom was Thatcher’s cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit. As a member of the aristocracy, Munday also draws on Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists and later Fascist movements.

Mosley unfurling his Fascist banner in the ’30s.

The rhetoric about youth is also very much that of the Tories around Maggie Thatcher, who really didn’t like long-haired liberals, hippies, punks and the other youth movements, who had sprung up at the time. They were calling for the return of National Service to stop the rise in youth crime and delinquency.

And this is now very much the attitude of the Kippers and Brextremists over here, who really do hanker after the old days of the British Empire, with all its pomp and authoritarianism. The last thing that incarnation of Torquemada says is

‘We’ll make our country great again!’

This is also based on the rhetoric of the Tories at the time, in which Thatcher was credited with turning around Britain’s decline and restoring her to her glory. In the general election that year, the Tory party election broadcasts showed old footage of Spitfires and Hurricanes racing around the sky shooting down Nazi planes, while an overexcited actor exclaimed ‘It’s great – to be great again!’

No, she didn’t make us great. She wrecked our economy and welfare state, and sold everything off to foreign firms, all the while ranting hypocritically about how she represented true British patriotism.

But it also recalls Trump’s rhetoric last year, during his election campaign. When he announced ‘We’ll make America great again!’ And he’s gone on to use the same neoliberalism as Reagan, Thatcher, and successive Democrat and New Labour leaders, backed with racist rhetoric and legislation supported by White supremacists.

Torquemada was one of 2000 AD’s greatest comments on sectarian bigotry and racism, with Torquemada as its very explicit symbol. Even after three decades, it’s central message about the nature of Fascism, imperialism and colonialism, and the western hankering for its return, remains acutely relevant.

Tharg’s Tribute to Kevin O’Neill: When the Comics Code Banned His Art

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 30/12/2017 - 10:03pm in

Yesterday in one of the posts I mentioned the dictatorial grip the Comics Code Authority had over American comics from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. The Code was sent up to reassure and protect the American public after the moral panic over Horror comics in the 1950s. This spread to comics as a whole, which were seen as subversive, morally corrupting and un-American. This included bizarre accusations of Fascism and deviant sexuality aimed at those stalwarts of popular American culture, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The scare decimated the American comics industry, and nearly caused its total collapse.

The Code was set up to ensure that all comics were suitable for a child of seven to read. Its officials were unelected, and in many cases had right-wing views that showed absolutely no understanding of popular politics or culture. It was supposed to be a voluntary organisation, and there were comics creators who worked outside and often against the code. Like Robert Crumb and the underground scene, or the independents Like Dave Sim and Cerebus the Aardvark. In practice, however, those comics were well outside the mainstream, and were only available in head shops and specialist comics stores like Forbidden Planet and the late, lamented Forever People in Bristol.

I discussed how the Code rejected one issue of the Green Lantern Corps, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O’Neill, on the grounds that O’Neill’s artwork was too grotesque and disturbing for children. This was ironic, as he had been delighting children and adults with his monstrous aliens, mutants, robots and equally grotesque humans for years in the pages of 2000 AD. He was and remains one of comicdom’s favourite artists, and while the other artists who worked on the Nemesis the Warlock strip added the considerable talents to the tale of the Warlock and his foe, the human ‘Ultimate Fascist’ Grand Master Torquemada, I think much of the strip’s initial popularity came from his superb, bizarre artwork.

2000 AD duly paid tribute to him and his censorship by the Comics Code in their anniversary issue, Prog 500, published on 14 December 1986. In it, Tharg took a walk through the contents of his mind, reviewing the comic’s history and revisiting some of the characters that didn’t work. At the end he comes to Kevin O’Neill, who appears as a stunted, crazed sadist. O’Neill admonishes him for censoring the most extreme piece of violence in the strip. Tharg tries to reassure him by reminding him that he won the ‘ultimate accolade’ for which other comics creators all envy him: the day the Comics Code banned his art as totally unsuitable for children. To which O’Neill replies ‘Hmmph. You won’t get around me by flattery’. Unsatisfied, O’Neill then calls down Torquemade, who promptly beats Tharg up.

The different sections of that strip were written and drawn by the different artists and writers, who worked on the comic, so there were different credit cards for them for each section. That section ends with the credits reading ‘Script Therapy: Pat Mills. Art Therapy: Kev O’Neill. Letters: Steve Potter’. Which suggests that the letterer was the only sane one there.

Here’s a few panels.

The real O’Neill is, however, quite different from his portrayal in the strip. It’s been pointed out several times that the fans, who’ve met him, are often surprised that he doesn’t dress in black and silver like the Terminators. And the other rumours about him are also totally untrue. Like he only works at night using a quill pen in the light of candles, and has an occult temple in his basement. I met him at UKCAC 90 in Reading, where I queued with Mike to have him draw a character on the blank badges we’d been given for our fave artists to draw on. O’Neill at the time was a wearing a ‘Solidarity for Nicaragua’ T-shirt, which a left-wing friend of mine at college also wore. He also was wearing a brown leather jacket, and his facial features at the time reminded me a bit of John Hurt. He was affable, enthusiastic, full of nervous energy and completely unthreatening. If you seem him now at comic conventions or footage of them on YouTube, or the occasional interview for television, he’s obviously older and balder, as effects so many of us eventually. He comes across as genial and entertaining British gent, completely unlike the berserk monstrosities that rampage across his strips down the years. Even when he’s telling the stories about how he and Pat Mills went as far as they could in savaging American superhero comics and right-wing, superpatriotic American politics in the violent and nihilistic Marshal Law. Actors, writers and artists aren’t their creations. Fortunately.

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